September 28, 2008
Taxes and Evils
Although it has gotten VERY little publicity, Massachusetts has an initiative on the November ballot to repeal the state income tax. Yes - repeal the state income tax. Many peoples' gut reaction is bound to be -- wow, wouldn't that be great? More money in my pocket and less to evil government. An article in this morning's New York Times said that passage of this initiative would eliminate 45% of the state budget. It also said that some people are planning to vote "yes" just to express their dissatisfaction with government in general.
However, this kind of reasoning suggests to me that we need a major reframing of the meaning of taxes in this country. We need to help people understand what their taxes buy. Did you drive to work on a road? Did you, by any chance, cross over a bridge? Did you receive a payment from Social Security? the VA? Medicare? Did you (or your child, or your grandchild) attend a public school? Did the fire department come when your house was burning down?
Of course, there is waste in government -- and there may be government expenditures we object to (like that $12B/month item on the other side of the world) -- but we don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Now, of course, I may be a little sensitive to this issue since I am employed by a major state university, which gets some of its money from ... you guessed it, taxes. (State universities are now wont to call themselves "state-assisted" rather than "state-supported" for good reason - but that's a topic for another post.)
Where is our sense of the common good? Well - I guess that's the whole tension in the U.S. now between the lean-government-let-the-market-reign-conservatives and the government-as-provider-of-common-goods-liberals. it fascinates me that the country is split right down the middle over this meta-issue. My European friends just shake their heads. But of course, their governments aren't perfect either. We seem to move ahead by lurching from right to left and back again. Is that progress? At the moment, it doesn't seem that way to me.
For me, when I flinch at the bottom line on that tax return, I will try to remember that I have just bought a share of that road, that bridge, that VA payment, and yes, that major state university. And I will surely be voting in that November election and urging others to do so too.